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Jason Mraz

Mr. A-Z (Atlantic)

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Jason Mraz's second studio album actually makes something of its uninspired title. From his upbeat whiteboy funk to his clever coffeehouse "Wordplay" to his swooping, Broadway-style ballads, Mraz couldn't cover more bases if his skills had been designed by a marketing committee. Of course, for those who prefer that "talent" be preceded by "natural," this super-competent musician may sound as antiseptic and calculated as the Backstreet Boys or Linkin Park. But while those two machines homogenized Boyz II Men and Korn, this one-man talent show actually improves on his sources and then some.

At his worst, Mraz is still smarter than Jewel and more human-sounding than Dave Matthews. At his best, he's a young Rufus Wainwright or late-period Elvis Costello for freshman sorority pledges, which is to say that this former theater student has a real knack for complex, idiosyncratic balladry. "If the plane goes down/Damn," he croons on "Plane," a typical combination of huggable self-deprecation and showmanship that hinges on alliteration and phrasing -- all the old-school elements of pop craft generally eschewed in the American Idol era. This time, go in peace, pink-cheeked geek.

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